Our exhibit, “Listening to Life: Psychologists create”, was a new project for our organization, reflecting a relatively new and growing area of research in psychology. The research is not only teaching us more about creativity as a trait and/or a process, but highlighting how creativity contributes to wellbeing, learning, business, science, you name it.
So I was excited to find this CBC report on research* at Harvard Medical School regarding medical students taking art classes. By learning how to look closely at faces, bodies, they improved their powers of observation. The result? Better diagnostic skills in comparison to their colleagues who elected not to take the art classes.
This is pretty cool, isn’t it? The researchers found that, in developing this “visual literacy”, even studying abstract art is helpful, because it enhances pattern recognition skills. Besides the additional medical skills enhanced by art studies, there has been a side benefit ---- some doctors pick up art-making as an avocation. Which we know, from other research, will serve them well.
Paying attention, deep listening, seeing more clearly, flexibility.. All these skills, so important to science, innovation, creative thinking, and successful relationships, are key aspects of making art.
Vision is the Physician
Art is the Prescription” --- Fred Babb
So why have arts programs in schools been sidelined or even cut out entirely? What is being lost or diminished, and for what purpose? Why are we still treating art-making with such ambivalence, as if we cannot figure out its function once we get out of pre-school?
*Thanks to About.com:Painting for bringing this article to my attention.
Don’t you love it when one of your personal theories gets, well, proven in some way?
Most of us have theories for everything, given the chance to expound. A basic starting place for cognitive therapy is to ask about and explore those personal theories. Most are based on history and perception with little chance of being proven or disproven. So we investigate based on utility and outcome, on functionality and impact.
But occasionally a pet theory can be validated (or clearly rejected) out in the real world.
For some years I have been saying that while I used to be excellent at remembering facts, I seemed to have lost the ability. When I read an article, then try to tell someone else about it, it quickly devolves into vague abstraction. I can recall the essence but not the evidence, so to speak.
I attributed this cognitive change to having acquired so many facts, my brain must let go of some. But also I think in big pictures, and my brain is organized by overlapping sets of associations. New learning gets put into the most closely associated system, gets integrated, shifts my big picture accordingly. The details are lost in the gestalt.
I haven't viewed this change as losing ability/facility but as processing information differently. Besides, facts seem to change a lot. A lot of facts I learned in school for example, even graduate school, would just hold me back now. Nonetheless sometimes it makes me look bad to flounder for factual memory.
So imagine my delight at reading this May article by Sara Reistad-Long in the New York Times---even the title gives me joy “Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain.” Hah!
Reistad-Long writes: “ ….the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.”
She further reports on research by Shelley H. Carson, a Harvard psychologist. While not denying that some brains do deteriorate with age, Dr. Carson notes that what may be happening in others is “a gradually widening focus of attention that makes it more difficult to latch onto just one fact, like a name or telephone number“. Hah! again.
Not only that, but “distractibility….may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.” Dr. Carson reports finding that while older people may read a passage interrupted with new information more slowly, they absorb and process the out-of-place information better than college students.
Older brains transfer information gained from experience to new situations and as a result make more or different connections and read between the lines. Which seems exactly what wisdom is about, doesn't it?
Interestingly, in previous research Dr. Carson found that students deemed to be more creative were also less able to ignore out-of-place, seemingly irrelevant information, suggesting that the ability to attend more broadly may be related to creativity. (Not being able to filter irrelevant information can be problematic, too, of course. Carson theorizes that stages of attention and working memory--being able to hold several things in your mind at
once--- is part of what keeps wide-ranging attention from causing problems.)
I find evidence in this research to support another theory of mine, i.e. that curiosity is fundamentally connected to creativity. What is curiosity if not a broad attention span? Still, for creative products to emerge, curiosity has to be kept on a leash enough for completion. Hence the need for focus and persistence, an attribute of courage.
Our best personal theories come from close attention and asking questions, being flexible enough to reconsider. What's your favorite theory about aging, or creativity, or aging creatively? Maybe someone out there is trying to prove it, even as we speak.